The best books about the Napoleonic Wars and their impact on Europe

Philip Dwyer Author Of Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799
By Philip Dwyer

Who am I?

I'm an Australian historian specializing in the French Revolution and Napoleon. I have spent a goodly part of my career writing a three-volume biography of Napoleon, alongside chapters, articles, and edited books that aimed at reassessing the man and the period. Working on Napoleon and the French as occupiers led me into the history of massacre and more broadly into the history of violence. I studied under the preeminent French Napoleonic scholar, Jean Tulard, at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV.

I wrote...

Book cover of Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799

What is my book about?

In the first volume of the trilogy, I focused on Napoleon’s formative years, from his Corsican origins to his French education, from his melancholy youth to his flirtation with radicals of the French Revolution, from his first military campaigns in Italy and Egypt to the political-military coup that brought him to power in 1799. One of the first truly modern politicians, Napoleon was a master of “spin,” using the media to project an idealized image of himself. 

I was always fascinated by his meteoric rise from literally a nobody to gain power in the most powerful country in Europe at the young age of thirty. The journey that led him there was neither inevitable nor smooth. This is one of the few biographies that really attempt to uncover the man, that focuses on the evolution of Napoleon as a leader, and that debunks many of the myths that are often repeated about him. I tried to reveal just how ruthless, manipulative, and driven a man he really was.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848

Why did I love this book?

This masterful analysis of European foreign policy encompasses a period slightly larger than the life of Napoleon, but the core of the book is the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. On first reading this I was struck not only by the depth and breadth of Schroeder’s knowledge, but also by his uncanny ability to question standard interpretations and to present an original and oftentimes provocative evaluation. This book made me think about how best to write history. Elegantly written, this is an accomplished tome that will be read by students of foreign policy for many years to come. 

By Paul W. Schroeder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the only modern study of European politics to cover the entire timespan from the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763 to the revolutionary year of 1848. Paul Schroeder's comprehensive and authoritative volume charts the course of international history over this turbulent period, in which the map of Europe was redrawn time and again. Professor Schroeder examines the wars, political crises, and diplomatic opportunities of the age, many of which - the
Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna and its aftermath - had far-reaching consequences for modern Europe.

Professor Schroeder provides a new account of…

Book cover of Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814

Why did I love this book?

One of the few books to explore Russia’s interactions with France, and not just the disastrous 1812 campaign. Lieven, a specialist in Imperial Russian history, gives the reader an invaluable insight into Russian thinking and Russian sources that is often missing from English language books on the Napoleonic Wars. Written in an accessible and engaging style, it explores the central role Alexander I played in Napoleon’s downfall as ‘liberator’ of Europe.

By Dominic Lieven,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Russia Against Napoleon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A compulsive page-turner ... a triumph of brilliant storytelling ... an instant classic that is an awesome, remarkable and exuberant achievement' Simon Sebag Montefiore

Winner of the Wolfson History Prize and shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize

In the summer of 1812 Napoleon, the master of Europe, marched into Russia with the largest army ever assembled, confident that he would sweep everything before him. Yet less than two years later his empire lay in ruins, and Russia had triumphed. This is the first history to explore in depth Russia's crucial role in the Napoleonic Wars, re-creating the epic battle between…

Book cover of The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

Why did I love this book?

Not everyone agreed with the author’s assessment of the Napoleonic Wars as the first total war, and I can’t say that I am overly convinced myself, but Bell presents the reader with an interesting and provocative interpretation of the practice of warfare at the dawn of the modern era. I came away with a better appreciation of the horror of battle and war during this period, something that is often glossed over in the standard military histories of the era. Was the practice of ‘total war’ brought about by mass conscription or had the seeds already been planted? 

By David A. Bell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The First Total War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

World War I has been called 'the war to end all wars', the first time combatants were mobilized on a massive scale to ruthlessly destroy an enemy. But as David A. Bell argues in this tour de force of interpretive history, the Great War was not, in fact, the first total war. For this, we need to travel back to the era of muskets and sailing ships, the age of Napoleon. According to Bell, it was then that warfare was transformed into the hideous spectacle that seems ever present today. Indeed, nearly every modern aspect of war took root in…

Book cover of The Peninsular War: A New History

Why did I love this book?

Charles Esdaile, a specialist of Spanish history, is one of the more prolific writers on the Napoleonic Wars, so it was not easy choosing only one of the numerous books he has penned, including a general history of the wars. Spain, however, has always remained a bit of an outlier in the history of the period. Here we get an insider’s view of the situation in Spain leading to the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy and an accessible, lively account of the often complicated events that followed. Esdaile doesn’t shy away from treating either the Spanish, the guerrillas, or Wellington head on.

By Charles J. Esdaile,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Peninsular War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For centuries Spain had been the most feared and predatory power in Europe - it had the largest empire and one of the world's great navies to defend it. Nothing could have prepared the Spanish for the devastating implosion of 1805-14. Trafalgar destroyed its navy and the country degenerated into a brutalized shambles with French and British armies marching across it at will. The result was a war which killed over a million Spaniards and ended its empire.
This book is the first in a generation to come to terms with this spectacular and terrible conflict, immortalised by Goya and…

Book cover of Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814

Why did I love this book?

Speaking of which, this is the first of a two-volume biography of Wellington and is no doubt the most exhaustive and the most up-to-date biography of the man and his career. I’ve personally always found Wellington to be a fairly unlikeable character and there is nothing in this biography that made me change my mind. However, Muir’s familiarity with the sources and the archives enables him to integrate the personal, the military, and the political into this thorough examination of the man that ultimately defeated Napoleon.

By Rory Muir,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Wellington as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A landmark contribution to understanding the real man behind the heroic legend inspired by the triumph at Waterloo

The Duke of Wellington was not just Britain's greatest soldier, although his seismic struggles as leader of the Allied forces against Napoleon in the Peninsular War deservedly became the stuff of British national legend. Wellington was much more: a man of vision beyond purely military matters, a politically astute thinker, and a canny diplomat as well as lover, husband, and friend. Rory Muir's masterful new biography, the first of a two-volume set, is the fruit of a lifetime's research and discovery into…

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